Church, Mosque – or what? A taste of Istanbul’s complex history

CollageWorth a visit if you happen to be in Istanbul, the mosque of Molla Zeyrek, formerly the Byzantine monastery church of Christ Pantokrator, has recently undergone a complete restoration. Next door, a tasteful café and restaurant located on a terrace overlooking the Golden Horn offers magnificent panoramic views of Pera district, the entrance to the Bosporus, the imperial mosques of Sultanahmet and Suleiman the Magnificent, with glimpses of the Asian shore behind. The café also features an excellent bookshop selling memorabilia for the tourist who prefers something a little classier than what is to be found in the more frequented attractions.

A little of the building’s history:

Whole monastery

Prior to restoration

Shortly after Constantinople fell to the invading Ottoman armies in 1453, the twelfth-century Church of the Monastery of Christ Pantokrator was converted into the Zeyrek mosque. Named after Molla Zeyrek, a well-known scholar who lived during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II, Zeyrek Camii served not only as a religious center but also as a hub for Islamic enlightenment. The church-turned-mosque is one of the finest examples of religious architecture from the Byzantine era in Istanbul and the second-largest surviving Byzantine religious structure in the city after Hagia Sophia. The church and monastery were built by Emperor John II Komnenos to honor his wife’s wishes to house the “poor, sick, and suffering souls.” The north and south churches, dedicated to Christ Pantokrator and the Archangel St. Michael, are connected by an imperial chapel that was used as a mausoleum for the Komnenos and Palaiologos dynasties. This masterpiece of the middle period of Byzantine architecture consists of extraordinary domes capping the north and south churches and the imperial chapel, with complimentary interiors formed by elegant vaults and arches. Today, the monastery has completely disappeared except for the cistern, some structural elements, and timber houses that served as residences during Ottoman rule, encircling the Zeyrek Camii. Source.

Tiled floor

Interior tiled floor

The Monastery of Christ the Almighty (Pantokrator) was founded by Ioannes II Komnenos (1118-1143) and his wife Eirene, a born princess of Hungary, and built between 1118 and 1137. The south church was built first, then the north church was added, and finally a grave chapel with two oval domes was constructed in the space between both churches after their outer halls in this area had been demolished. This monumental ensemble is the greatest church building in Istanbul after the time of Justinian I, and it is the only one from the later time where we know the name of the architect, Nikephoros. The monastery is known in detail from the surviving foundation document where its buildings, the life of the monks there and the hospital connected to it are described. In the grave chapel, a number of emperors were buried including Ioannes and Eirene themselves, Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) and Manuel II Palaeologos (1391-1425).

The Zeryek Camii complex served as both an important Christian religious and education center and later as a mosque established to educate Muslim students. Zeyrek Camii shares similarities with its not-too-distant neighbor, Hagia Sofia. Both have housed two religions under their majestic domed roofs and have functioned as dominant architectural symbols of the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Source.

Molla Zeyrek

The monastery church with the mosque of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror behind

The complex of Monastery of the Pantokrator (Ruler of all), was dedicated to Christ and stood on a hill overlooking the ancient aqueduct of Valens near the geographical center of the city. There are three interconnected churches. The first building was constructed by the Empress Irene between 1118 – 1124. This was the largest church and it was richly decorated with mosaics and rare marbles. Shortly thereafter a large church was built alongside the first one to the south and it was dedicated it to the Vigin Eleosa – “Mercy”. Finally, a wide space between the two churches was vaulted over by two domes and transformed into an Imperial mausoleum dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel.

The south church is one of the largest churches built during the Middle Ages in Constantinople with a nave 16 metres square and a dome 7 metres across. The survival of so many huge cathedrals in the capital, like Hagia Sophia and Holy Apostles, made the further construction of big churches unnecessary. The pietism of the time and the preference for smaller, community monastic churches also dictated a more intimate size.

View from caf

View from the terrace

The splendid interiors of all three churches were remarked upon in the Middle Ages. The Comnenian Emperors and their wives lavished money and gifts on the monastery, which was covered in golden mosaic tiles, rich marble veneer, precious metals and semi-precious stones. Even the floor was inlaid with a fantastic opus sectile rinceau carpet of carved, colored marbles depicting mythological scenes, hunters and animals. Fragments of stained glass set in lead found in the church indicate the windows of the apse were set with figures of Christ, the Virgin and possibly other saints.

The mausoleum church contained many relics, including the stone upon which, it was claimed, Christ had been anointed after his crucifixion. This mausoleum was filled with the marble tombs of Emperors and Empresses and its iconostasis was said to have been encrusted with gold enamel and gems.

The church was founded as a hospital with many beds and there were nurses and doctors attached to the monastery. It was also a center of learning and art. The founding document for the monastery – its Typicon – survives and outlines all its social functions in detail.

The+Fourth+Crusade+1202-1204.+Original+goal+was+to+conquer+the+Muslim-controlled+parts+of+Jerusalem+by+invading+through+Egypt.In 1204 the city of Constantinople fell to the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade after a series of vast and horrible fires set by the Crusaders. These conflagrations levelled large swaths of the city and consumed art treasures and books created and gathered over 900 years by the Byzantines. These included some of the greatest works of antiquity and a vast trove of Western civilization went up in flames. Catholic looters spread throughout the city to snatch what was left and the booty was thought to be the greatest ever seen.

The soldiers from France, Italy, and all across Europe did not spare the churches of their brother Christians; they stripped them bare of their valuables. The Pantokrator was attacked and looted. The tombs of the Emperors and Empresses were opened and their bodies were stripped. Monks and nuns were murdered and raped. Tens of thousands perished.

1204_sack

“Christian” crusaders loot and sack the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia, 1204

The Venetians claimed the Pantokrator as part of their booty and occupied the complex until the Latins were ousted from the city by the Byzantines in 1261. Towards the end – when it became apparent they could not hold on to Constantinople it is said the Venetians removed the enameled panels from the iconostasis of the Pantokrator and shipped them to Venice, where they became the centerpiece of the famous Pala d’Oro. Source.

[That’s Christians for you!]

 

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